Chocolate and Gold Coins

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Group Project in High School

My father is in town and I was recalling some memories of high school. One thing that I really disliked about high school was the tendency for teachers to take the easy way out and assign group projects instead of individual projects. The teachers would justify this decision by glibly saying that group projects teach people to work in groups which we to learn in business. This is nonsense! Before I attack that claim though, I will point out the obvious: the real motive for group projects is that it cut down on the number of papers the teacher had to grade by a factor of 4 (typically there were 4 people in each group).

I should say that I did learn something from group projects, but the lessons were largely unintentional. I learned that in a group project, almost all of the work was done by the member of the group who desired the best grade. I was always the member of the group who desired the best grade so I ended up doing 90% of the work while the other members took a free ride. This does teach some lessons in game theory, but it also creates resentment.

I work in a company where we do group projects all the time. I have lead projects and I have worked on projects led by other people. The similarity between a group project at work and a group project in high schools is essentially nil. In a business setting, the project manager assigns specific tasks to each member of the group. If I charge hours to a project that I do not work on I could be in serious trouble (its against the law). If someone works for me and fails to deliver on an assigned task, he won’t work for me again. You can only do that so often before its time to find a new job. Unlike high school, there are serious consequences for free riding.

My father gave an interesting example from his college days. He went to college on either side of WWII and this example came from immediately after the war. He remembered that he was always in a group with this person named Watanabe. Watanabe never worked with the others. He was very studious, and got good grades, but he didn’t want to cooperate on group projects. He said that because of Watanabe’s bad reputation, he was one of the few students voted down when his name came up for admission into the engineering honor society at school. Years later, his resume circulated at the company where my father worked and he recommended that the firm not even interview Watanabe. So in Watanabe’s case, the consequences for free riding were greater than he thought.

Well there is an interesting postscript to the story of Watanabe. Watanabe was a Japanese-American who had been interred in a camp on the West Coast during WWII. Interring U.S. citizens was a terrible violation of human rights. The fear of the Japanese caused us to bend the rules. But it was purely racist: we did nothing against the German-Americans and the Italian-Americans.

I don’t doubt that Watanabe left the camp bitter. He probably had the attitude that he would look after himself first and foremost and he was not going to volunteer for anything. In many ways, this shows how ethnic minorities that feel aggrieved will be less cooperative, a point I was making in my post: What Can Finland Teach Us? This is another reason why we shouldn't look to the Finnish schools as an example to reform the U.S. public schools.


  • Admittedly, one of the problems with group project in school is the free-rider problem. However, when thinking about this problem in the context of developing a college level class, I think I have found a way around the problem.

    In a previous job, I had what was called a 360 review, meaning my job performance was rated by my supervisor, but also by my peers (those in the same role as I) as well as inside and outside customers.

    In assigning group projects, I would institute a similar sort of grading policy. Obviously the teacher would grade on his/her observations (including contributions to the group) but also consider evaluation by group members AND by someone outside the group who has no stake in that group's grade, i.e. another student not in the group.

    Whole letter grades would be deducted from the group if there was collusion about each person's contribution (very likely) or the assessment by the outside person was similarly tainted.

    By linking the group's grade and the individual grade based upon assessment by everyone involved, you would likely eliminate, some, if not all, of the free rider program.

    By Blogger Matt Johnston, at 10:14 AM  

  • Hi Mark
    I remember one teacher had a very similar system. I remember very well writing the whole paper (a good one) and finding out later that someone had given me a B simply because she "didn't like me". Politics is everywhere.

    It seems to me to be more trouble than its worth to try to create these kinds of incentives to not free ride. Just grade 30 papers. In the end, the writing of the paper is where the student really learn. Even if they do parts of the work collectively, they should all turn in an independent paper.
    Most of my college group project were like that. It worked fine.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 11:27 AM  

  • While Japanese-American internment was more extensive and widespread, Italian-Americans were interred as well, given id cards and had their travel restricted, and Italian-language newspapers were suppressed. We now think of Italian-Americans as white (I certainly look Anglo, and I'm 100 percent), but that wasn't always the case, especially when it came to those from southern Italy.

    Although, I did always hate those group projects in high school, and even in college - you either ended up doing all the work, or someone else thought you were an idiot and did it all for you, which was almost as frustrating.


    By Blogger Girl Flip, at 10:24 PM  

  • There are group projects, and then there are group projects, I think. In the first place, speaking from experience, it is very easy for teachers to become laissez-faire about projects in general, assigning the project, setting a due date, and then waiting for the results. The results tend to be of very low quality if projects are done in this manner, and the students don't learn anything. With group projects, it is all too easy for a teacher to see the group dynamics as the 'students' problem' for them to sort out on their own. The teacher has to focus on process, which is much harder. If a group has to do a significant amount of preparatory work under the teacher's supervision, and the teacher takes active interest in the group dynamics, things can be much better.

    By Blogger Jonathan Kallay, at 9:47 AM  

  • It gets better - Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not interred but those on the mainland were. Gross descrimination, but it shows that when you are a dominant minority you can work the system.

    We have group assignment rubrics that take care of some of this problem with group work. Also, I've seen people bullied into working. Everyone should have an assigned role in a well designed project.

    By Anonymous Ivory, at 1:06 PM  

  • Because we homeschool, my oldest daughter's first experience with typical group projects has been in college. She's been distinctly unimpressed. Her grandmother, who has worked on the space shuttle program for the last 20 years, has also told us that group projects in school have very little to do with the real world in which she lives and works.

    By Blogger Headmistress, zookeeper, at 9:20 AM  

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    By Blogger alena, at 6:49 PM  

  • I'm a first year teacher, and the main reason that I have assigned group projects, or group work in general, is because many of the students enjoy working with their peers. While a few students will complain that they do more work than other students,it seems that these problems could be eliminated by proper group planning. I think it's unfair of you to assume the worst about teachers in this scenario, but at the same time I appreciate the honesty of your blog and feel that the group project I'm creating right now will be better because of this blog.

    By Blogger Brett, at 6:35 PM  

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  • I've been a science teacher at the high school level for 28 years. Quite frankly, I hate group projects, and my best students do, too, for all of the reasons listed here. But the biggest problem with projects that involve constructing a product is that some families simply don't have the resources for projects. Teachers use group project time to get caught up with grading, and can monopolize the computer lab for days while their students are supposed to be doing research for their projects. (In reality, they are surfing he web for monster trucks and prom dresses). I would rather do quality lab work and other engaging class activities. Lastly, parents hate projects more than students.

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